The Tennis Tempest at ABC

If you thought Teddy Kennedy's pratfall over Samuel Alito's membership in a conservative Princeton alumni group was embarrassing (quoting magazine satire articles as if they were real), you should see what ABC's "Nightline" tried to pull last week.

The subject was the ethics of judicial travel. As investigative reporter Brian Ross explained in the middle of the piece, "Justices at all ends of the political spectrum take plenty of these trips to lots of nice places, all paid for by somebody else."

But this was no expose on justices "at all ends of the political spectrum." It was a shameless hit piece on conservatives, complete with hidden-camera cheap shots.

Only conservative justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas were featured, and roasted, by ABC. Ross noted Scalia was being pampered by a "conservative activist" group, the Federalist Society, and the story's main ethical scold, law professor Stephen Gillers, was labeled merely as a "recognized expert on legal ethics." ABC didn't tell its viewers that Gillers is a hardened leftist who has written for the Nation magazine about the "nightmare" of conservatives controlling the government.

The show began with the moral lesson on screen: "High Court, High Living," it read. Anchor Cynthia McFadden lectured: "This Supreme Court justice playing tennis at a resort as the president swears in his new boss." Did ABC follow Scalia to Colorado to catch him in the heinous act of pick-up tennis? Or did someone else with a political agenda provide the footage to ABC? ABC should have been forthcoming on that key point, but wasn't.

Brian Ross underlined ABC's gotcha point: "Scalia's apparent snub of the Chief Justice was one thing. But some legal ethics experts say his presence at the resort raises even larger questions about what critics call judicial junkets."

The Federalist Society complained bitterly in a letter to ABC News pointing to numerous facts that the Society made known to ABC beforehand, but which "Nightline" ignored. While Ross did acknowledge (quickly) that Scalia taught a "ten-hour course," he didn't note the tennis-playing was only two hours, which makes it preposterous to cast the trip as a "junket" payoff. Scalia received no honorarium, and this lecture, which was scheduled long before Roberts was even nominated, was no little speaking gig: Scalia had charged the judges attending his class to read a 481-page packet he assembled specifically for this presentation.

When the Federalist Society complained to ABC News in a letter, Kerry Smith, "senior vice president for editorial quality," made comical claims in reply. First, he said the story met ABC standards for balance. Second, he claimed "we did not characterize it as a junket." Does the viewer at home think ABC didn't call it a junket by saying "what critics call judicial junkets"?

ABC showed its sometimes grainy, supposedly incriminating candid-camera footage of Scalia on the tennis court, in the gift shop, and chatting with guests, but never showed him teaching. How's that for a balanced video presentation? Isn't it funny that supposedly substantive ABC chose to focus here on a tabloidy issue - watch Scalia in shorts on the tennis court - and ignored the intellectual substance of what Scalia taught? But that's the National Enquirer nature of TV "news" today, even on "Nightline."

After several minutes of Scalia-pounding, Ross moved on to attack Justice Thomas for receiving an "$800 leather jacket from NASCAR, as well as a $1,200 set of tires. And from one Texas conservative activist, a vacation trip by private jet and a rare Bible, valued at $19,000." Ross said "documents obtained by ABC News" proved all this. Hokum. Readers of the Los Angeles Times might remember that reporters Richard Serrano and David Savage reported all this on December 31, 2004.

Unlike ABC, the Times also publicized what other justices reported receiving. Sandra Day O'Connor reported an $18,000 award in 2003 from the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, "but listed it as income."

Ruth Bader Ginsburg "has received a number of large monetary awards since joining the court in 1993, which she reported giving to charity." In 1996 she received $100,000 from the philanthropic Kaul Foundation and gave money to 26 charities and nonprofits, including "women's organizations." What? Has Justice Ginsburg used this foundation money to fund feminist groups like NOW on the sly? ABC doesn't care.

Others have noticed Stephen Breyer attending the posh Clintonista "Renaissance Weekends" in Charleston. Golf (at specially discounted rates) is listed on the program. Where's the hidden camera? Breyer's even on the advisory board.

Compare Tennis-gate to other stories. In 1999, Juanita Broaddrick charged through tears on NBC that President Clinton violently raped her in a Little Rock hotel room in 1978. "Nightline" never investigated that. In fact, "Juanita Broaddrick" is a name "Nightline" has never uttered. Their idea of a scandal is Scalia playing tennis?